Climate Corner: Women, the environment and health issues

Jun 3, 2023

Randi Pokladnik

In 1974, a new term, ecofeminism, was used when speaking of women’s roles in the environmental movement. The definition of ecofeminism combines ecological concerns with feminist concerns in a philosophical and political movement.

Throughout history, many strong, intelligent women have endeavored to speak truth to power. This is especially true when it comes to issues of health and environmental destruction. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson took on the agri-chemical industry to expose the negative effects of pesticides. Marina Silva, who grew up in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, spoke out to protect this forest from illegal logging during the 2000s. Today we have Greta Thunberg leading the fight to address the climate crisis.

Sadly, while women continue to fight for the planet, they are also fighting for their lives as many of the illnesses visited on females are directly linked to toxins released into our environment. The continuing rise in breast cancer rates reflects this link. In the 1970s, breast cancer was not common, but in the past fifty years the incidence of cancer has significantly increased to the point that the National Institute of Health says one out of eight women will get breast cancer in their lives.

The “Clan of the one-breasted women” is a narrative written by Terry Tempest Williams, a breast cancer survivor who grew up downwind of the Nevada nuclear test sites in the 1950s. The basic theme of her story was an examination of the source of the multiple cases of breast cancer in the Williams family. For decades, the women of the Mormon family blamed their cancers on “bad genes.” However, years after her mother succumbed to cancer, Terry realized that being exposed to radioactive fallout from the government’s testing of nuclear devices near Utah played a pivotal role in the cancers.

In the narrative she describes a story of a family living in Hurricane, Utah. They saw the night sky turn red as they sat on top of the roof of a local high school watching a nuclear detonation. The Tempest family also experienced an above-ground explosion while driving north from Las Vegas in 1957. Her dad pulled their car over onto the side of the road as a pink mushroom cloud spread above the surrounding countryside. This scene was played out many times around the Nevada site where between 1951 and 1992, nuclear weapons tests were performed both above and underground.

The British-made documentary “Assault on the Male” brought attention to the correlation of declining sperm counts in males to the increase in petrochemical products. It also highlighted another interesting finding that affects females. Dr. Ana Soto, a breast cancer researcher, discovered that plasticware, in which human blood serum was stored, shed an estrogen-mimicking chemical. Dr. Soto showed that breast cancer cells grew when placed in plastic petri dishes, but did not grow in glass dishes. Studies reveal that toiletries, plastics, and spermicides may release estrogenic compounds. These estrogens may act cumulatively as reproductive disruptors and may also increase the incidence of breast cancer.

Sandra Steingraber, a cancer survivor, endocrinologist and author of “The Falling Age of Puberty in US Girls”, said that over the past decades, the onset of puberty in girls has occurred earlier, especially in the USA and other affluent countries. Numerous studies have linked exposures to hormone-mimicking compounds, like those found in plastics, to early puberty in females. Also of concern is the fact that early puberty is a known risk factor for breast cancer.

Women’s health and exposure to unregulated chemicals are linked. We know that women use more personal care products and are exposed to more endocrine-disrupting compounds such as perfluoroalkyl or PFAS. These chemicals cause “cancer and hormone disruptions, weaken immune systems, and are linked to low birth weights.” In a 2021 Science News report, University of Notre Dame researchers “tested 231 frequently-used makeup products, including liquid foundation, concealer, blush, lipsticks and mascara, and found 82% of waterproof mascaras, 63% of foundations, and 62% of liquid lipsticks contained at least 0.384 micrograms of fluorine per square centimeter of product spread out.”

Women are exposed to chemicals via sanitary products. The cotton fibers that are bleached and used to make cotton swabs, cotton balls and tampons can contain dioxins, a known human carcinogen. These dioxins can be directly absorbed into the blood stream and accumulate over time in the body. Many of these products are considered to be medical devices and therefore have no regulations for their ingredients.

Women use the majority of cleaning products which in many cases do not disclose the entire list of ingredients. The website “Women’s Voices” points out that “some products contain reproductive toxins such as toluene and phthalates, carcinogens like 1,4-dioxane and chloroform, and a hormone disrupting synthetic musk.” My own mom only used vinegar, baking soda and alcohol to clean with because her sensitive skin couldn’t handle cleaners like Lysol and ammonia.

However, the petrochemical industry has done a great job convincing many housewives that they need these toxic products to make homes safe and sanitized. It is not surprising that “petrochemical feedstock accounts for 12% of global oil demand.”

It is time to embrace ecofeminism, and to increase the number of women in Congress from the current 28% to 50%. Women deserve a larger role in writing policies and laws for chemicals and products that disproportionately affect them as well as the planet.


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in environmental studies and is certified in hazardous materials regulations